Two real-life tragedies, separated by decades, loom over The View UpStairs, a vibrant if overstuffed new Off Broadway musical with book, music, and lyrics by Max Vernon.
The show begins, though, with a burst of life. It’s 1973 New Orleans, and the entire Lynn Redgrave Theater has become the UpStairs Lounge, a jubilant gay bar in the French Quarter, thanks to Jason Sherwood’s immersive scenic design. Neon bar signs and beer paraphernalia are hanging around the room. A few handpicked audience members even sit at tables on the edge of the stage, making us all patrons of the establishment one character aptly describes as “gay Applebee’s meets an episode of Hoarders.”
Wait — how does a 2017 reference work in 1973? Let’s back up: In the present day, aspiring fashion designer and social media star Wes (Jeremy Pope) has just returned home to New Orleans after a few years roughing it in Brooklyn. Still determined to make his dreams of a fashion empire come true, he purchases the rickety, water-damaged building that formerly housed the UpStairs with plans to turn it into his flagship store. But one night, the old Lounge comes back to life around him, and despite being slightly freaked out by these sudden “hallucinations,” Wes quickly warms to the kooky, retro bunch — especially the handsome, free-spirited Patrick (Taylor Frey).
The crew shows Wes how they formed their own family in this under-the-radar bar, a refuge from the cruel, bigoted outside world: The UpStairs protects them in a way that Wes, whose parents “came out for me” when he was nine, never really had to understand. Wes’s lessons to them about our screen-filled future are purposefully less poignant, but yield the show’s funniest lines — like when he calls Puerto Rican drag queen Freddy (Michael Longoria) a “fierce bitch” and everyone springs to Freddy’s defense. (Wes explains that it’s a compliment in 2017.)
The View UpStairs sags at times. A few minor characters’ forgettable songs could easily have been cut, ideally to make room for more of the absolutely scene-stealing, uproarious bits from “old queen” Willie (Nathan Lee Graham). And when the truth of the UpStairs Lounge’s fate emerges, its parallels to the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub are drawn with a heavy hand—Vernon could have trusted an audience of theatergoers in Greenwich Village to easily connect the destruction of these two sanctuaries.
Still, the show swells with heart, and its characters and the history they represent should rightly be celebrated and remembered. The View UpStairs is ultimately a moving homage to LGBT culture, past and present. B-